As you can see this is one piece of a five-part essay. If you’d rather read it all at once, you can find it in barneywiget.com
“I tell you, no!” said Jesus disagreeing in no uncertain terms with their premise that bad things happen exclusively to bad people. Spiritual blamers of all types might be well advised to take his word for it. He knows what we don’t.
Interestingly, in this case he didn’t actually posit an alternative explanation for the source of this man’s suffering. He didn’t lecture them about God’s sovereignty or about the devil’s role in human tragedies. The point he chose to make that day was that those who were so apt to assess the relative quality of others’ spirituality should do their own self-analysis. He used their opinion of other people against them and told them to do what they recommend for everyone else – repent. “Speaking of people whose behavior could very well lead to disaster, you guys should look at yourselves in the mirror and repent!”
He changed the focus of the conversation. Instead of judging the sufferer, he told that that they should evaluate their own lives and be forewarned of their own inevitable judgment, that is, unless they change. Everyone will face his or her own “performance review,” and as it stood that day, they had some serious repenting to do in order to face that day with confidence.
But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
While the Galileans died at the order of a murderous dictator, the 18 people in Jerusalem perished due to an unpredictable misfortune, what some people call an “act of God.” The one was a crime perpetrated by a ruthless tyrant and the other a random accident, a fluke of nature. The tidy explanation of the assembled crowd involved blaming the victims. Jesus, on the other hand, assigned no blame, but rebuked the blamers. The God-experts needed to eliminate the plank from their own eyes before attempting meticulous eye surgery on others.
Jesus had an opportunity to play the part of the apologist and defend God against charges of mismanaging the world. Instead, he warned them against instinctively equating tragedy with divine punishment. Sinful behavior is not always – even not usually – to blame when atrocities come. They just come. Life is fragile and we’re way over our heads when we try to judge every catastrophic circumstance as karmic payback. But life’s fragility gives it urgency, urgency to repent and live close to God.
Jesus turned our attention away from disasters, victims, and playing the blame game to address those of us who thus far have survived the hazards of a random universe and human cruelty. We shouldn’t mistake our good fortune necessarily as evidence of God’s special blessing. We’re advised not to misinterpret divine protection as divine approval. He makes his sun rise over the heads of both the good and the evil. Because we’ve not been victimized by wicked people or maimed by calamity doesn’t mean he approves of the way we live.
Notice too that Jesus didn’t promise them that if they’d repent they would never be the victims of tragedy. He didn’t promise them protection from suffering, but from God’s judgment. If they didn’t change their self-righteous ways, they would face the kind of judgment that they nearly seemed to wish on others.
Jesus didn’t explain tragedy or blame the victims. He didn’t defend creation or the Creator. In this case he offered no theological speculation, but simply asked: What about you? How will you live your lives?
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If when we observe the sufferings of others our first thought is to assign blame for it, we haven’t heard Jesus. If we assume off hand that victims of disaster are at fault and that God is punishing them, we prove that our faith is at best, immature or at worst, toxic. Instead of silly speculation and victim blaming, we should concern ourselves with our own relationship with God (Luke 13) and pry ourselves from our judge’s bench to serve the sufferer (John 9). We should humble ourselves and get to work while there’s still time to get to it. When we ask, “Why did God allow this tragedy or that travesty?” we’re asking the wrong question. Instead we should say, “In light of these incomprehensible cataclysms and horrific injustices, how must I live my life? And Lord, what would you have me do?”